Software biases

How is our current thinking shaped by the technologies that we use? In addressing this issue we must examine the underlying biases of our software, and it is to this end I will review a text written by the American architect Mark Foster Gage.

In a book chapter titled Software Monocultures Mark Foster Gage raises a critical discussion of the profession of architecture and its current dependence on computational software.  He sees the widespread attitude as somewhat credulous and calls for a more critical discussion about the influence of digital technology since it “dramatically continues to alter how the products of the architectural profession are designed, produced, documented, transmitted, approved, tested, and recorded.” The fundamental idea is that even though software packages have been designed to manage information they nevertheless introduce biases and impact the creative process—“No tool, software included, is free from leaving traces of its use.” From this general backdrop, Foster Gage continues and sketches three related trends in contemporary architecture.

The first trend is the use of representational Computer Aided Design (CAD) and its later transformation into Building Information Modelling (BIM) systems. While this development is in no way a new thing it still holds tremendous power over the profession. The software packages offer user-friendly tools and promise streamlined construction processes. Foster Gage identifies as one drawback here that the profession of architecture come to depend on a very limited set of software packages “that give architects access primarily only to the Euclidean geometries on which the profession has traditionally relied.” He continues to argue that “The irony here is that while the computer has enabled vast advances in the formal opportunities for architectural design, never before have architects relied so heavily on standardized interfaces of design that obscure these new formal freedoms.

The second trend then, is somewhat less widespread, and comprises of the importation of non-architectural software into architectural design. Examples of this come in the form of software programs made to support the automotive industry (AliasStudio), character animation in movies (Softimage, Maya) or origami folding (Pepakura). While these experiments certainly have engendered many interesting ideas and forms, a potential drawback here is that in the hands of inexperienced practitioners the tools themselves run the risk of biasing the designs. “This pulls the work into existing discourses of animality, biology, and natural metaphor that are unlikely candidates with which to understand new languages of form. And so tools designed to produce automotive surfaces produce architectural projects that look like cars, and tools designed to produce paper origami sculptures began to produce architectural projects that look like paper origami sculptures.”

Finally, Foster Gage discusses what could be seen as the only alternative left: If you can’t get what you need off-the-shelf, then make it yourself. There is now a growing trend where architects have begun to author custom digital scripts. Architectural scripting and the close connection to computer controlled production processes is perhaps one of the most interesting developments as of late when it comes to new architectural forms of knowing. What has become known as parametric/algorithmic architecture has in some ways reversed the relation between the notions of control and design. The question that is on everyone’s mind now, is how these techniques affects architectural practice. According to Foster Gage, scripting has become the definitive language of how to deal with variegated multiples assembled into larger architectural wholes. The concern however, is that the very stuff of this practice “exists within its own world of rules since scripting is, by definition, a myopic process that isolates a problem so that it can be overcome with a limited set of precise and interrelated algorithms. Such myopia risks becoming a new hermetically sealed environment, where outside influence is weak if not non-existent.”

Taken together, these words of caution could be read as a critique of any attempt to bring digital technology into conversation with the practice of architecture. Fore sure, such ideas have been voiced in the past, but Mark Foster Gage is not one bent on Luddism and the work made by his office unquestionably attest to the contrary. What I find interesting with his argumentation is that he, as a member of a professional practice, is speculating about the impact of specific technologies in relation to that practice. Central throughout his line of reasoning is the return to the practice. Thereby the argumentation retains an aspect that is often lost in current discussion on technologies. This is also what makes this discussion important and in merit of a reading well outside of architecture.

Outside of architecture, many discussions on the relation between learning and new technologies are missing this kind of attachment to a practice. But when technologies and their associated forms of knowledge are addressed in the abstract it becomes somewhat like trying to settle the issue of absolute motion. We must understand that some concepts are inherently relational and just like motion, when described for an object, also needs a frame of reference, so does knowledge require a practice. Individuals, when confronting an assortment of software, will of course develop a variegated set of skills regardless of whether they are part of an established practice or not. But our possibilities to assess or evaluate those same skills can not be premised on an individual basis—Evaluative judgments have to be anchored in performance made by a collective. To continue with the metaphor, if the development is moving in the direction that we want is so to speak a question of our observational frame of reference.


Jonas Ivarsson

Jonas Ivarsson, Professor

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Författare: Jonas Ivarsson

Jonas Ivarsson är professor i pedagogik. Hans forskningsintressen rör lärande och kunskapsutveckling i högre utbildning och andra teknikintensiva miljöer. Flertalet arbeten behandlar på vilka sätt introduktionen av nya teknologier förändrar villkoren inom olika yrkespraktiker.

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